The Usage of Idioms in the Language of German EFL-Students. A Corpus Study

Term Paper, 2016

13 Pages, Grade: 2,3

Marc Felsbrecher (Author)


Table of Contents


1. Idioms – Definition, Comprehension and Acquisition
1.1 Definition
1.2 Idiom Comprehension and Acquisition

2. Methodology

3. Corpus Study

4. Discussion

5. Conclusion



In the abstract to their corpus study on idioms in academic speech, Rita Simpson and Dushyanthi Mendis state:

“A mastery of idioms is often equated with native speaker fluency, but it is difficult for language teachers and material writers to make principled decisions about which idioms should be taught, given the vast inventory of idioms in a native speaker´s repertoire” (419).

The idea that the usage and understanding of idiomatic language is put on one level with native language proficiency is plausible - mainly because of the circumstance that idioms usually not only have a literal meaning, but also an idiomatic one that can - at most – very indirectly be derived from its syntactic elements. This fact can be illustrated by examining a very common English idiom like “kicking the bucket”: On the one hand, there is the literal meaning of the idiom which would be, in this case, to “strike the bucket with one´s foot”. On the other hand, there would be the idiomatic meaning which would in this case be “to die” (cf. Liu 2008:5). It is evident that because of these two layers of possible meaning, with the idiomatic or metaphorical one mostly completely non-related to the literal one, it is more difficult for the listener to understand and for the speaker to employ these specific units of speech. Furthermore, it has to be noted that established idiomatic expressions are often linked to the culture and history of the country´s language. Hence, idioms can be described as “culturally encoded” (Liu 2008:66f.), which for non-native speakers makes it even more difficult to correctly apply them in their language production.

Whereas a lot of research has been done on the description, comprehension and acquisition process of idioms, the field of idiom teaching (pedagogy) in English second language speakers has remained largely undiscussed (cf. Liu 2008:65). Therefore - and since the rich usage of idioms is equated with authentic, native language production in particular - the aim of this short corpus study is to investigate the usage of idioms in the language of non-native English speakers, especially in the language production of German English second language learners (“ESL-Students”). It is argued that ESL-Students in Germany do not use idiomatic language in their production of English, mainly due to the circumstance that idioms are not explicitly taught in the English foreign language classroom (EFL-classroom) and because the language input in German English teaching classes is too artificial to pick them up unintentionally.

The first part of this paper will contain a definition of what idioms and idiomatic language are and shortly address the processes of idiom processing, comprehension and acquisition. A second part will contain a corpus study that will shortly examine the usage of idioms by ESL-Students in contrast to the idiom usage of native speakers in quantitative as well as in qualitative terms. The two corpora used will be the ICLE-German (“ICLE-GE”) and the LOCNESS corpus. The list of idioms that the corpora are examined for is taken from English second language teaching textbooks currently used in German English classes. The final part of this paper will discuss the question whether the teaching of idioms in German ESL-classrooms is successful (correct and rich usage of idioms by ESL-Students, almost native proficiency) or not (idiom usage in ESL-Students incorrect or low) and make suggestions for effective idiom teaching in the EFL-classroom.

1. Idioms – Definition, Comprehension and Acquisition

1.1 Definition

The question of what an idiom is has been discussed vividly throughout the last decades. Firstly, it has to be noted that not only multiple words units have been discussed as possible idioms, but also single words or even morphemes. The idiomatic usage of single words is closely linked to their figurative usage. An example of this are the multiple possible senses of the verb (to) shoulder as they appear in the British National Corpus:

(1) Erlich shouldered his way through the crowd
(2) He shouldered towards them
(3) Yet she shouldered the blame
(4) The old woman shouldered her bag
(5) Ian had shouldered him all the way home

(from: MacArthur 2008:160)

In this example the variety of senses of the verb (to) shoulder ranges from the metonymic understanding of the word, which is the association of a part of the human body with carrying, moving or supporting (examples (1), (2) (4) and (5)), to the metaphorical usage of the word (example (3)) which, in this case, refers to the “physical experience” and also to the clearly idiomatic term of “feeling the weight of the blame on one´s shoulders” (cf. MacArthur 2008:160). This example illustrates that even single words, especially in figurative or metaphorical use, can have idiomatic meaning or can at least strongly correlate with idiomatic language.

This circumstance is certainly one of the reasons why Hockett (1958) provides the broadest definition of what constitutes an idiom. To him “any language element whose meaning cannot be deduced from its structure is an idiom, including units as small as morphemes (e.g. work, ed, tele, phone, class and room) and as large as clauses (e.g. What´s up?)” (Liu 2008:4). On the one hand, this broad definition of (nearly) every single word and morpheme as an idiom by Hockett is reasonable: There is never any meaning to be found in words just by themselves. Language is always a code and meaning is constructed by speaker and listener, so meaning itself can never be deduced from the words or their structure directly. Meaning is always linked to the figurative sense of words and idiomatic phrases. On the other hand, however, this definition by Hockett is too broad to be of much practical value for further study, mainly because according to this theory too many language items are labelled as idioms (cf. Liu 2008:4).

Katz, Postal and Makkai (1963, 1972) gave a narrower definition of what an idiom is. They claim that “[t]he essential feature of an idiom is that its full meaning, and more generally, the meaning of any sentence containing an idiomatic structure, is not a compositional function of the meanings of the idiom´s elementary grammatical parts. […] In other words, any linguistic structure (including polymorphemic words) whose meaning is not the compositional meaning of its constituent parts is an idiom” (Liu 2008:5). So according to Katz, Postal and Makkai words such as greenhouse or telephone count as idioms because their meaning, in this case a place for nursing plants or a device for long-distance talk, is not a composite meaning of the morphemes green and house or tele and phone. Unsafe or overestimate are, however, no idioms since the meaning of each is indeed the composite meaning of the two combined morphemes (cf. ibd.). Katz and Postal also proposed the distinction between the two classes of “lexical-” and “phrase idioms”. “Lexical idioms” are defined to be the idioms consisting of single, however polymorphemic, words, whereas “phrase idioms” are idioms consisting of multiple words (ibd.).

Weinreich (1969) refers to the theories of Katz, Postal and Makkai, again giving a much narrower definition of idioms that is also much closer to what is “generally understood” to be an idiom by non-linguists:

“First, he does not believe that single polymorphemic words […] can be idioms. To him, only multiword expressions like blind date and pull someone´s leg may qualify as idioms. […] Weinreich further limits the scope of idioms by reserving the term only for those expressions that have both a literal interpretation and an idiomatic one and, more importantly, are potentially ambiguous as in the case of pull someone´s leg […] or be in hot water” (Liu 2008:7).

This study will work with the definition of Weinreich (1969), counting multiword expressions (“phrase idioms”) with both a literal and an idiomatic meaning as idioms only. This confinement is made because it is consistent with the understanding of what an idiom is according to the consulted EFL-textbooks. As can be seen in (2), the idioms taken from the textbooks and searched for in the corpora fulfil the definition of idioms by Weinreich best.

1.2 Idiom Comprehension and Acquisition

Numerous studies on L1 idiom comprehension and acquisition have been undertaken. The various hypotheses on L1 idiom comprehension boil down to the following five theories: the “literal first hypothesis”, the “simultaneous processing (lexical representation) hypothesis”, the “figurative first hypothesis”, the “compositional analysis hypothesis” and “the dual idiom representation model” (Liu 2008:47ff.). As the names suggest, these different hypotheses discuss the ways and sequences in processing idiomatic language items in the native speaker´s brain and are, therefore, at the moment rather peripheral for the study of idiom usage in L2 language production.

The number of studies on L2 idiom processing and acquisition is, on the other hand, rather small. However, the few studies that do exist offer interesting information. It is claimed that the use of “contextual information”, the use of “pragmatic knowledge” or “knowledge of the world” and “cultural information” are the major strategies that L2 learners use to process and understand idioms (Liu 2008:66ff.). The main hypothesis is that L2 speakers have to rely on the context in which the idioms are used (What could it mean? What would make sense here?) and have to try to construct possible meanings mainly by employing means of pragmatics and their knowledge of the culture or cultural customs of the country the foreign language is spoken in. In this working routine, the literal, non-figurative meaning of the idiomatic phrase is usually considered first - mainly since it is more “straight forward” to understand - and tried to make sense of in the current context in any figurative or metaphorical sense. Also, speakers of English as a foreign language consult their knowledge of their L1 when trying to understand unfamiliar idioms by checking whether there might be any similar phrase in their mother tongue. This use of the L1 is expedient in some cases but can also interfere, for instance when the idiom concerned does exist in L1 but, unfortunately, with a difference in meaning (Liu 2008:66f.).

Idiomatic phrases in a foreign language have to be learned as a whole by the language student. This process of acquiring and integrating idioms into the learner´s vocabulary is more complex than the learning of miscellaneous foreign words since not only the figurative meaning, but also the literal meaning and the suitable situation to use the idiom (pragmatics) have to be understood. In the L1 the process of idiom acquisition is incidental, paired with the general process of language acquisition[1] (cf. Liu 2008:93) whereas in the L2 the same process is more complex and always linked to previous knowledge of the speaker, mostly of pragmatics, of his first language and of the possible figurative or metaphorical use of language (cf. Liu 2008:74).

2. Methodology

The second part of this paper contains a corpus study that will shortly examine the usage of idioms by ESL-Students in written language in contrast to the idiom usage of native speakers in written language. The two corpora employed will be the ICLE German (ICLE-GE) and the LOCNESS corpus. The whole body of the individual corpus will be used in both cases. The list of idioms that the corpora are examined for is taken from English second language teaching textbooks currently used in advanced English classes (“Oberstufe”) in German schools.


[1] The acquisition of idioms by children does, however, also take place in the advanced stages of language development.

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Marc Felsbrecher (Author), 2016, The Usage of Idioms in the Language of German EFL-Students. A Corpus Study, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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